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‘We don’t need to panic just yet’: D.C. residents worry that a dog park is in peril

Dogs get their morning exercise at the Columbia Heights dog park, which has provided a place for four-legged District residents to frolic and play for the past nine years. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Rosie likes to run laps. Finn prefers to wrestle. Ivy practices tricks, while Louise lounges.

Miles usually stakes out his favorite spot: on top of the floor grate, hoping to catch a burst of breeze. What they have in common is this: They are regulars at the Columbia Heights dog park.

The park, a space where dogs can run and leap and chase tennis balls until their hearts are content, has existed at 11th Street and Park Road NW since 2009. The land on which it exists, however, is owned by Metro. And it might be for sale this year.

Afraid that their beloved gathering place will disappear from under their feet, dog-park regulars of the human kind asked D.C. Council members to earmark $1.5 million in the city’s budget to purchase the land. The council will review a proposed spending plan next week, at which time, Columbia Heights residents said, they will get their answer.

“If it’s not in there during the budget reading Tuesday, then it’s probably not going to be in there,” said D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who represents the area.

That’s what residents are worried about.

“At first I wasn’t too concerned about it because, you know, who doesn’t like a dog park?” said Columbia Heights resident Kaitlin Love, 31, who frequents the park with her shepherd mix, Louise. “But now I’m quite afraid that they’re not going to allocate the money and we’ll lose this community — because that’s really what it is, a community.”

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In 2016, residents met with Metro officials about a possible long-term agreement that would allow residents to renovate the park. But a year later, instead of an agreement, they got some unwelcome news: Metro wanted to sell the land.

A nonprofit group organized by dog-park regulars, called 11th and Bark, started a letter-writing campaign and circulated petitions and a virtual onslaught of photos featuring pups wearing signs asking officials to “save my dog park.”

In an email to community organizers earlier this year, Ann ­Chisholm, Metro’s government relations officer, wrote that the transit agency would decide whether to proceed with a sale this summer.

Metro spokesman Ron Holzer said the city will have the right of first refusal for the land on which the dog park sits, though the asking price has not yet been decided. Metro is waiting on a final appraisal, which Holzer said it should have by fall.

The space was never really meant to be a park.

With no water source, dog owners have to bring their own jugs and bowls to fill up at nearby restaurants that have agreed to help. A lack of drainage creates what parkgoers refer to as “the pond,” a collection of runoff and rainwater that creates a mud pit in the middle of the park.

To enter and exit, dog owners must pass through a single gate — unlike the more-secure, double-gate enclosures at most dog parks. On more than one occasion, dogs have gotten out.

“It’s really not very safe as it is,” said Lori Robertson, 47, a member of 11th and Bark’s board of directors. “Improving it would not just be the right thing to do for the dogs and dog owners who go there; it would make it a better community asset. A space that could serve all kinds of people.”

Community members routinely host cleanup events to improve conditions. But, longtime parkgoers said, it needs a full overhaul.

Robertson and her husband, Eric Gronning, drafted plans to renovate the park with grass, better fencing and running water, and a parklet on the other side of the fence for people who might not have a dog but want to enjoy the space. The group is hesitant to begin work if a sale is imminent.

“We’re not going to start improving the park and driving up its property value if, at the end of the day, they’re just going to turn around and sell it,” said Maggie Garrett, 44, another board member.

Originally, members of 11th and Bark said, they thought about raising money to purchase the park themselves. But $1.2 million, the estimated market value, seemed out of reach. If all else fails, she said, they’ll have to find a new space.

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At least two of the five candidates seeking to unseat Nadeau on the council have visited the park in recent months. Both candidates, like Nadeau, say they support the city purchasing the land, although they differ on details.

Nadeau has spent months lobbying for $1.5 million in the council’s 2019 spending bill that would allow the city to buy the land. Should that fail, she said, the mayor might still be able to reallocate money to buy the park if it were for sale.

“My sense is that we don’t need to panic just yet,” Nadeau said. “There’s still other possibilities. But gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we could just get this done?”

Ward 1 candidate Jamie Sycamore, a dog owner, said Nadeau’s proposal falls short of what he believes the community needs: He would propose setting aside $3 million for the park.

“That safety net is to make sure there’s enough money to be invested in everything that needs to get done,” said Sycamore, whose dog, Rory, has visited the park. “If you want to show you’re really invested in the community, invest in the community. Pick up a shovel. Show you care.”

Another council candidate who has visited recently, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kent C. Boese, said that $1.5 million might be too much. The city, he said, should take stock of its public land and get more input before determining if the park’s location is its best option.

“If we are using public funds for the property, we should have a bigger conversation . . . rather than funneling money toward a predetermined outcome,” he said. “Maybe it is the best site for a dog park. Maybe it isn’t. Either way, how can we know that unless we’re exploring all of our options?”

Several dog owners said that a failure by the city to purchase the park might sway their vote in future elections.

“Having an issue that I care about like this at the local, local level will definitely give me a strong incentive to vote and pay attention to what candidates are saying about the park and this community,” Love said.

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